Wednesday, July 31, 2013

God Ever Wills for Repentance

"Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets."  (2 Kings 17:13)

And we, too, confess a God, but one, the Creator, Maker, and Builder of the universe; and we acknowledge that all things are governed by His Providence, and by Him only.  And we have received a sacred law; but our Lawgiver is the true God, who teaches us to act justly, to live godly, and to do good.… But when [Israel] transgressed the law which God had given them, God, merciful and gracious, not willing to destroy them, not only gave the law, but afterwards sent forth prophets unto them from among their brethren, to teach and remind them of the things of the law, and to turn them to repentance that they should no longer sin… There are many or rather innumerable passages in Holy Writ relating to repentance, in which God ever wills that mankind should turn away from all their sins.

Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 3.9

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

God's Unsearchable Greatness

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.  (Psalm 145:3)

The appearance of God is ineffable and indescribable, and cannot be seen by eyes of flesh.  For in glory He is incomprehensible, in greatness unfathomable, in height inconceivable, in power incomparable, in wisdom unrivaled, in goodness inimitable, in kindness unutterable.  For if I say He is Light, I name but His own work.  If I call Him Word, I name but His sovereignty.  If I call Him Mind, I speak but of His wisdom.  If I say He is Spirit, I speak of His breath.  If I call Him Wisdom, I speak of His offspring.  If I call Him Strength, I speak of His sway.  If I call Him Power, I am mentioning His activity; if Providence, I but mention His goodness.  If I call Him Kingdom, I but mention His glory.  If I call Him Lord, I mention His being judge.  If I call Him Judge, I speak of Him as being just.  If I call Him Father, I speak of all things as being from Him.  If I call Him Fire, I but mention His anger.  You will say to me then, "Is God angry?"  Yes, He is angry with those who act wickedly, but He is good and kind and merciful to those who love and fear Him.  For He is a chastener of the godly and father of the righteous, but he is a judge and punisher of the impious.

And He is without beginning, because He is unbegotten; and He is unchangeable, because He is immortal.  And he is called God on account of His having placed all things on security afforded by Himself … running and moving and being active and nourishing and foreseeing and governing and making all things alive.  But he is Lord, because He rules over the universe; Father, because he is before all things; Fashioner and Maker, because He is creator and maker of the universe; the Highest, because of His being above all; and Almighty, because He Himself rules and embraces all.  For the heights of heaven, and the depths of the abysses, and the ends of the earth, are in His hand, and there is no place of His rest.  For the heavens are His work, the earth is His creation, the sea is His handiwork.  Man is His formation and His image.  Sun, moon, and stars are His elements, made for signs, and seasons, and days, and years, that they may serve and be slaves to man.  And all things God has made out of things that were not into things that are, in order that through His works His greatness may be known and understood.

Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus 1.3-4

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Cure Worse Than the Disease?

If It Hurts, It's Good for You
More than once I have heard this or a similar statement made in the context of physical labor or exercise.  Yet as difficult as those times of muscle strain might be, nothing in the ordinary seasons of life, compares to the internal strain wrought by the acknowledgment of sin, repentance, and confession.  Whether one is an addict who is driven by his fixation or a person who just needs to make amends for an unkind word, nothing quite affects the well-being so positively as the admission of guilt.

At the same time nothing is so difficult to accomplish.  People deal with their flaws in different ways: some conceal, some deny, and others will even flaunt.  Whatever means can be used to avoid squelching pride will be held tightly until convinced by the truth of God's word with its sharp, cutting work of exposing the baseness of who and what we are.

Tertullian recognized the effectiveness of confession as he describes the practice of ἐξομολόγησις (utter confession) for those who had recanted the faith in order to prevent suffering or death during the early persecutions. When they wished to repent, they were called on to publicly display repentance designed to move the church to once again accept them into fellowship.
With regard also to the very dress and food, it bids him to lie in sackcloth and ashes, to cover his body in mourning, to lay his spirit low in sorrows, to exchange for severe treatment the sins which he has committed. Moreover, to know no food and drink but such as is plain,—not for the stomach’s sake but the soul’s; for the most part, however, to feed prayers on fasting, to groan, to weep and cry out to the Lord your God; to bow before the feet of the elders, and kneel to God’s beloved; to impose on all the brethren to be ambassadors to bear his deprecatory supplication. (On Repentance 9)
Regardless of how one reacts to the degree of austerity in the practice, the personal elements—abnegation and supplication—were well-known reactions to sin in the biblical world (1 Ki 21:27; Neh 9:1-2; Jon 3:5-8).  On the Day of Atonement, God commanded the community, "afflict yourselves," "do no work," and "have a holy convocation" (Lev 16:29-31; 23:27-31; Num 29:7), not because there was a particular, identifiable sin, but because they were sinners.  The holy things needed to be cleansed because of what they were, not because what they did.

Avoiding It Like the Plague
All people, whether from the early third-century or early twenty-first, have a natural inclination to avoid disclosure for fear of "a public exposure of themselves," attempting to defer repentance
thinking more of modesty than of salvation; just like men who, having contracted some malady in the more private parts of the body, avoid the confidentiality of physicians, and perish because of their own bashfulness. (On Repentance 10.1)
The inability to face the truth inhibits us from seeking a needful remedy.  Many can attest to those they knew who avoided early medical attention for an affliction and slipped into a far worse condition.  We do much the same in the spiritual realm by turning away from the light of truth and the One who is the light:
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed (John 3:20).
We fear the both the Great Physician and his cure.  We know his condemnation is just, and that we cannot withstand its full brunt.

Putting on a Brave Face
Sin has a cascading effect: the more we do it, the more bold we become.  We seek out others who will engage in the same sinful activities and try to convince others to join (Prov 1:11-14; 7:14-20; Rom 1:32).  Attitude becomes more brazen as revelry and wantonness increase.

When faced with our own sin and the need for repentance, this turns to sheepishness.  Shame enters with a tendency to cower.  There is a feeling of being trapped—knowing that the only way out is to come clean, yet fearing what others will think of the admission.  Some “double down” on sin hoping to salve the conscience.  The rest struggle for a time as pride continues to wage war in a desperate attempt to maintain its inimical control as the person considers the possible reactions and scenarios from acquaintances if repentance is made.  Perhaps no other person knew of the sin, and when exposed, friends and acquaintances turn against him or her.

The spiritual understand that sinners are "a dime a dozen."  Their assemblies are filled with them and are represented from the elders down to the newest believer.  The difference is that they know and believe that Christ died for their sin.  They understand that the one wrestling with sin is no different than they who will exhort, care, and admonish for good.  That is the place of refuge—the body of Christ.
But among brethren and fellow-servants, where there is common hope, fear, joy, grief, suffering, because there is a common Spirit from a common Lord and Father, why do you think these brothers to be anything other than yourself?  Why flee from the partners of your own mischances, as from such as will derisively cheer them?  The body cannot feel gladness at the trouble of any one member, it must necessarily join with one consent in the grief, and in laboring for the remedy.  (On Repentance 10.2)
The church acts as nurse-maid, solacing and binding up the repentant one as the Holy Spirit does his work.  Being Christ's very body, it acts as his hands and mouthpiece to restore and correct what had been injured or lost.  Here there is the comfort of knowing restoration and acceptance of one whose sins are forgiven for Christ's sake.

No Pain, No Gain
Death is painful and ugly, tearing asunder what is a whole person with throes being a visible testament to the end.  In similar fashion our sin struggles within.  Though our old self is crucified with Christ (Rom 6:6) and we be considering our selves dead to sin (Rom 6:11), that nature still works in our members seeking to regain control.  Having been buried with Christ, the repentant person will feel the struggle in presenting his members as slaves of righteousness leading to sanctification (Rom 6:19).
But where repentance is made, the misery ceases, because it is turned into something beneficial.  Miserable it is to be cut, and cauterized, and tortured with caustic medicinal powder.  Still, the things which heal by unpleasant means do, by the benefit of the cure, excuse their own offensiveness, and make present injury bearable for the sake of a future advantage.  (On Repentance 10.4)
Yes, repentance hurts, but the sin had been doing far more damage, bringing misery and destruction upon us at our own hand.  Only the effectual work of God's word and Spirit allows us to now walk in newness of life, being cleansed from unrighteousness by virtue of Christ's atoning sacrifice on our behalf.

Monday, July 22, 2013

May He Establish Your Hearts Blameless in Holiness

And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.  (1 Thess 3:12-13)
I swear on the very Logos, who for me is greatest God,
source from source, of the immortal Father,
image of the archetype, a nature its begetter's equal,
who descended even into human existence from heaven;
I swear I will not, diabolically minded, cast off the Great Mind
with heretic mind, nor the Word with heretic word.
If I should sunder the divinity of the luminous Trinity,
hearkening to the will of this inimical age;
if the great seat should ever goad my mind to madness,
or should I lay on my hand with heretical desire;
if I should prefer a mortal guardian to God,
securing my line to a weak rock;
if I should ever have a haughty spirit in good fortune,
or confronted with ills, conversely fall feeble;
if feigning righteousness I should dispense a justice somehow skewed;
if the supercilious should receive my esteem before the holy;
if seeing the base somehow at peace or crags on the route of the noble
I should veer from the right path;
if envy should dissolve my spirit; if I should mock
the stumbling of another, even one unholy, as if holding my own step secure;
if my mind should collapse with tumid anger, and if unbridled
my tongue race and my heart turn a wonton eye;
if I should hate someone fruitlessly, and if I should punish
my enemy stealthily or even openly;
if from my home I should dismiss a beggar empty-handed,
or a spirit still thirsting for a heavenly word;
may Christ attend another more gently, but as for my efforts,
even up to my white hairs, may the breeze take them.
By these laws I bind my existence.  And should I achieve
the fulfillment of my desire, Eternal Christ, thanks be to you.
Gregory Nazianzen, Poemata de seipso 2.1.2
Trans. Suzanne Abrams Rebillard

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Christ's Redemption: Good News for All

There can, therefore, be no reason to doubt that Jesus Christ our Lord died for the unbelievers and the sinners.  If there had been anyone who did not belong to these, then Christ would not have died for all.  But He did die for all men without exception.  There is no one, therefore, in all mankind who was not, before the reconciliation which Christ effected in His blood, either a sinner or an unbeliever.  The Apostle says:
For why did Christ, when as yet we were weak, according to the time, die for the ungodly?  For scarce for a just man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man one would dare to die.  But God commends His love towards us, because if when as yet we were sinners, Christ died for us, much more, being justified by His blood, shall we be saved from wrath through Him.  For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.
The same Apostle says in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:
For the love of Christ constrains us, judging this, that if One died for all, then all were dead.  And He died for all, that they also who live, may not live to themselves, but unto Him who died for them and rose again.
And let us hear what he says of himself.
A faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation: that Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief.  But for this reason I have obtained mercy: that in me first Christ Jesus might show forth all patience, for the information of them that shall believe in Him unto life everlasting.
Therefore, the whole of mankind, whether circumcised or not, was under the sway of sin, in fetters because of the very same guilt.  No one of the ungodly, who differed only in their degree of unbelief, could be saved without Christ's Redemption.  This Redemption spread throughout the world to become the good news for all men without any distinction.

Prosper of Aquitane, Call of the Nations, 2.16

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

God's Love Evokes Repentance

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

(Isaiah 55:6-7)

What meaning for us have those themes of the Lord’s parables?  Is not the fact that a woman has lost a drachma, and seeks it and finds it, and invites her female friends to share her joy, an example of a restored sinner?*  There strays one little ewe of the shepherd’s, but the flock was not more dear than the one.  That one is earnestly sought; the one is longed for instead of all, and at length she is found and carried back on the shoulders of the shepherd himself.  For much had she suffered in straying.†  That most gentle father, likewise, I will not pass over in silence, who calls his prodigal son home, and willingly receives him repentant after his destitute state; then slays his best fatted calf, and celebrates his joy with a banquet.‡  Why not?  He had found the son whom he had lost; he had felt him to be all the dearer whom he had gained back.

Who is that father to be understood by us to be?  God, surely: no one is so truly a Father.  No one so rich in paternal love.  He, then, will receive you, his own son, back, even if you have squandered what you had received from Him, even if you return naked—just because you have returned.  He will rejoice more over your return than over the self-control of the other; but only if you heartily repent—if you compare your own hunger with the plenty of your Father’s servants, if you leave behind you the swine, that unclean herd—if you again seek your Father, offended though he be, saying, "I have sinned, nor am worthy any longer to be called yours."  Confession of sins lightens, as much as concealment aggravates them, for confession is counseled by satisfaction, concealment by impenitence.

Tertullian, On Repentance 8

*  Luke 15:8-10
†  Luke 15:3-7
‡  Luke 15:11-32

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Apostles' Creed: God's Work of Redemption Summarized

Behold, here you have the entire divine essence, will, and work depicted most exquisitely in quite short and yet rich words. In these consists all our wisdom, which surpasses and exceeds the wisdom, mind, and reason of all men.[1]  For although the whole world with all diligence has endeavored to ascertain what God is, what he has in mind and does, yet has never been able to attain to [the knowledge and understanding of] any of these things.  But here we have everything in richest measure. For here in all three articles he has himself revealed and opened the deepest abyss of his paternal heart and of his pure, inexpressible love.[2]  For he has created us for this very reason, that he might redeem and sanctify us.  And in addition to giving and imparting to us everything in heaven and upon earth, he has given to us even his Son and the Holy Spirit, by whom to bring us to himself.[3]  For (as explained above) we could never grasp the knowledge of the grace and favor of the Father except through the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the paternal heart,[4] outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible judge.  But of Christ we could know nothing either, unless it had been revealed by the Holy Spirit.

Martin Luther, Large Catechism: Apostles' Creed, II.63-65

[1]  1 Corinthians 1:18-25
[2]  Ephesians 3:18-19
[3]  Romans 8:14, 32
[4]  John 14:9; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Wall Is Down

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.  (Eph 2:14)

Souls born of God's fountain of goodness were detained in the world.  There was a wall in their midst, a sort of fence, a partition made by the deceits of the flesh and worldly lusts.  Christ by his own mystery, his passion, and his way of life destroyed this wall.  He overcame sin and taught that it could be overcome.  He destroyed the lusts of the world and taught that they ought to be destroyed.  He took away the wall in the midst.  It was in his own flesh that he overcame the enmity.  The work is not ours; we are not called to set ourselves free.  Faith in Christ is our only salvation.

Marius Victorinus, Commentary on Ephesians

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Christ's Unfathomable Goodness Surpassed My Wretchedness

They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.  (Psalm 145:7)

For when we had been created by God the Father, and had received from Him all manner of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil, so that we fell under His wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, as we had merited and deserved.  There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God in His unfathomable goodness had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness, and came from heaven to help us.  Those tyrants and jailers, then, are all expelled now, and in their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation, and has delivered us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father, and has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection, that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.

Large Catechism: Apostles' Creed, II.28-30

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Today's Great Mission Field

This is too good not to submit yet today—from Australian Bill Muehlenberg:

OK, so where do you think the biggest and most pressing mission field is found today? The Muslim world perhaps? Maybe North Korea? Or a place like secular Europe? Yes, those are all good choices. All are very gospel-poor regions where there is desperate need of solid gospel preaching and evangelism.

But I want to suggest that there may be an even more pressing mission field today. And it is not where you would expect. I dare to say that perhaps the greatest need today for mission and evangelisation is found in Western evangelical churches.

Read the entire post here.

Knowing When We Are Ready

God was moving to deliver his people from the Midianites and had chosen an unconvinced leader, Gideon, to lead the troops.  This Manassite sent messengers throughout all Manasseh, plus Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali, for men to fight (Jud 6:35), and when assembled, there were about 32,000 men gathered.  Not a large army, but willing nonetheless.

In order to use this as a lesson to rely on himself, the Lord said to Gideon:
The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, "My own hand has saved me."  Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, "Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead" (Jud 7:2-3).
This is a surprising turn for more than one reason.  Why were they afraid?  Why did God instruct Gideon to give the fearful opportunity to leave?

The answer to these questions can be found in Moses' instructions to the people of Israel, wherein he gives God's rules for waging war, which we see being followed by Gideon.

Rules of Warfare Battle of Jezreel Valley
Deut 20:3-4Priest promises God's presence and the victory. Jud 6:16God promises his presence and the victory.
Deut 20:8Officers inquire if any are fearful or fainthearted. Jud 6:3Gideon instructs any fearful to return home.

The reader may wonder why an opportunity to leave would be given to soldiers.  During the engagement, stress runs high as the soldier is on high alert.  If one falters and becomes afraid in the heat of battle, the effect is deleterious to those around.  Doubt enters into the minds of fellow soldiers, and panic can ensue.  That one becomes a greater menace than the enemy.  It is for this reason that Moses instructed the people: "Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own" (Deut 20:8).

Besides fear, a soldier was also allowed to be exempt for other reasons, again from Deuteronomy 20:
  • Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it?  Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it.
  • And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit?  Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit.
  • And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her?  Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.
Note the reason given for each is the very real danger of dying in battle—a disturbing and perplexing concept that contradicts a faulty theology of God ensconced in American Christianity.

The citizenry of industrialized nations has become increasingly comfortable with the notion that any national hardship can be overcome.  The historical rate of economic growth coupled with technological advances offers a false sense of security that anything is possible, if sufficient resources are brought to bear.  Somewhere along the way, the church embraces the same mindset.

For decades—even centuries(?)—Bible-wielding zealots have been preaching a gospel of glory, proclaiming that the most faithful will always overcome whatever might beset them.  The logic goes something like, "We are more than conquerors through Christ.  No weapon formed against us shall stand.  God will enable you to overcome the evil one in all things."  Taken separately these are true within their context, but the implanted message is that I cannot be defeated in any arena, assuming enough faith.  

God's promise in the above passages tells us something different.  No place does he promise that individuals will be free from suffering and death.  Rather he is with his elect and will bring victory corporately.  His plans and purposes are long-range, for Christ's body to function as a unit to continue the work until the final day.  People die in the work for Christ, sometimes violently.  We in the U.S. tend to be insulated from such trauma and carnage, but they are real and increasing.

Is the individual unimportant, then?  Certainly not.  He cares for each as they work together, each using the gift given through the Holy Spirit for use in the body.  Soldiers need to be properly trained to work as a unit and engage in warfare.  If a soldier is not ready, more time or training is required: he is not cast aside as useless.  God's exemptions given above tell us there are periods when a man can rightfully take the time until he is ready for service.

John Mark is a good example of someone who entered the fray too quickly.  He accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their journey (Acts 12:25) but abandoned them in Pamphylia (see Acts 15:38).  While we do not have the reason, his abrupt departure was a real cause of concern for the missionary work.  Later, Paul and Barnabas disagreed as to his usefulness, so much so that they parted ways with Barnabas taking Mark to Cyprus (Acts 15:39).  Yet some years later, both Paul and Peter would later relate Mark's work and usefulness:
Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, welcome him).  (Col 4:10)
Luke alone is with me.  Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.  (2 Tim 4:11)
She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son.  (1 Pet 5:13)
Christians are engaged in spiritual battles by virtue of their association with Jesus Christ.  Each one of these believers are at varying levels of spiritual maturity as they grow in him and will be called upon to engage the enemy in his relentless attempts to devour whoever is weak, isolated, or unprepared.  We are not called to rush into every fray.  Shepherds are placed in order to feed and tend, helping each to grow to a full maturity in Christ through the faithful teaching of scripture.  Allow them to do their job in your life and that of the local assembly.

You may not be ready now.  Do not let that discourage you.  Take a season for preparation.  The day of battle will come soon enough.